Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Raven Barefoot, center, raises her hand to ask a question of her teacher AnnaLouise Haynes Myers. The rest of the class works on projects Thursday during a sixth-grade art class at Normal Park Upper School.
Some Hamilton County Board of Education members worry that a new zoning plan for Normal Park excludes minorities and allows the magnet school's administrators to "hand-pick" their students.
School administrators disagree, saying the school's popularity has prompted more families to move into the school zone, making it impossible to further expand the boundaries.
Rather than add North Chattanooga's Bell and Spears avenues to the current Normal Park zone -- as the board voted to do in 2007 after closing Chattanooga Middle School -- the new plan would add only Spears Avenue from the ridge south to Cherokee Boulevard and east to Market Street.
"Residents that live on Spears Avenue are predominantly African-American, and there was talk of moving them to Red Bank (Elementary), and that raised a red flag to me," said board member Jeffrey Wilson. "In 2007, we said that Spears Avenue would be included, and the reason we did that is so (Normal Park) would maintain the appropriate levels of diversity."
But according to Hamilton County Schools officials, the racial breakdown of the 114 students on Bell and Spears avenues last fall was 47 percent black and 53 percent white. Of the 27 Spears Avenue students who would be added under the new proposal, 19 of them are black, and eight are white.
NORMAL PARK RACIAL BREAKDOWN
White: 75 percent
Minority: 25 percent
Native American/Alaskan: 0.8
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.5
Native American/Alaskan: 1.1
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.1
Native American/Alaskan: 1.2
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1.5
Source: Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee Report Card
"The misconception is that the proposed area two years ago was made up entirely of minority students, and that's not the case," said Danielle Clark, spokeswoman for the school system.
Superintendent Jim Scales said it is not unusual to see the demographics of a given school zone change over time.
"You find various trends," he said. "We want to try to preserve some sense of diversity, but there may be some things that are happening there that is outside the control of the school system."
Normal Park's Upper Campus has fourth through eighth grades, while its Lower Campus has pre-K through third.
When Dr. Scales proposed the new zoning plan for Normal Park to the board of education Tuesday, he said there had been so much growth inside Normal Park's current zone that adding students from the two streets would overcrowd the school and force the district to buy portable classrooms.
He also said that taking all the students that the board originally approved would reduce Red Bank Elementary to the point where it likely would lose an assistant principal and other staff.
Normal Park principal Jill Levine said that, after the successful elementary magnet program was expanded to include the Upper School campus, Normal Park went from about 200 students to what is projected to be more than 800 in the elementary and middle school this fall.
"The zone is just bursting at the seams. I'm thrilled to teach any kid that walks through the door," she said. "We've grown as much as we can grow."
School board member Rhonda Thurman said the new zoning proposal was a way for school administrators to pick and choose their student body. She suggested that students zoned for the school should be allowed to go there, and the district should reduce the number of out-of-zone magnet students they allow to attend.
"I don't know what color those kids are on Spears or Bell avenue, but if we have told them they can go to that school, they should be allowed to go there," she said. "People in Hamilton County continue to want neighborhood schools, but we continue to destroy them."
Board member Chip Baker, who represents Normal Park's district, described the school as a "Hamilton County school system success story."
"We set a plan two years ago, but the school has been so successful people have moved into the zone, and the ability to expand is not what we thought it was two years ago," he said. "It's a problem we'd all like to have."
Because people are fighting for a small number of seats in a "very desirable school," it's likely that some people will be dissatisfied after not getting in and begin to spread false information, Ms. Levine said. There are about 500 people on the waiting list next year for Normal Park, she said.
"Since we've been so successful, we've been put under the microscope. And that's fine. I invite anyone to stop by here," she said.
Board Chairman Kenny Smith said he would schedule a work session to discuss the school's zoning.
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Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...